Monday, April 30, 2012

A Living Salad Wall

A neighbor of mine is interested in installing a vertical garden, or living wall, to cover a concrete wall in his back yard. As he and I have been doing research and talking about this project, I've become inspired to do a little experimenting of my own.

I bought one of Bright Green's GroVert living wall planters (Amazon affiliate link) to see see how their system works. This 10-cell, polymer panel measures 8" wide, 18" tall and 4" deep. Multiple panels can be linked together to create a solid living wall.
The cells of the planter are set at a 45 degree angle to keep water and soil from falling out once the panel is mounted on the wall. Very clever! 
At the base of each cell is a "moisture mat" - another smart idea - that holds water and keeps plant roots from drying out. 

Here's the fun part - planting! I decided to fill my panel with salad greens and a few herbs. But there are lots of other possibilities, including succulents, foliage plants and annuals for sun or shade, depending on where you plan to install your vertical garden.

For my "living salad wall" I wanted lots of color and texture, plus I wanted organic starts since I plan to make salad eventually with what I've planted. So I headed to West Seattle Nursery to see what I could find. I came away with lettuces: 'Wildfire Mix,' 'Salad Bowl Red,' 'Winter Density,' a spicy mesculun mix, and endive. I also got 4" starts of cilantro, Italian parsley, French thyme and and 'Apricot Trifle' nasturtium.

I realized as I planted these that it might have been better to have planted less in each cell, and filled in with more potting soil. It is tempting, though, to do just what I did, because a 4" pony-pack fits really nicely into each cell. But no worries, I can easily revise the planting if necessary as the season progresses.

OK, with the planting done, the next step was to water thoroughly and let the panel sit at a slight angle to drain before mounting. While the panel was draining, I installed the bracket to hold the panel onto my fence.
You'll have to furnish your own fasteners. Fortunately, I had some galvanized wood screws on hand.

And here it is - my living salad wall! 

To top it off, I added an irrigator box.
This little box mounts on top of the panel and holds a quart of water. (I'm showing it here with the lid open. After adding water, you'll want to close the lid to keep dirt from getting in.) Small holes in the bottom of the box let water slowly trickle down into the planter, keeping the plants and the moisture pads irrigated. 

It will be fun to see how this works out. As with any gardening experiment, I expect some plants to do well and others will need to be replaced. If I get a few salads out of it, I'll consider it a success. Regardless, the planter and irrigator will still be around for me to use in another season. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Changing My Mind About Spirea

I've never been a fan of spirea. When I hear the name, what comes to mind is one of the big, sprawling bridal veil varieties (Spirea cantoniensis, S. prunifolia, or S. x vanhouttei). These plants produce masses of white flowers in spring that, to me, smell unpleasantly musty. I don't want to be around them.

But there is a mound form of spirea (Spirea japonica) that has won me over. There are several plants in this group, many of which stay below 3' tall, all with striking foliage. Cultivars such as 'Goldflame,' 'Goldmound,' and 'Limemound,' certainly live up to their names in the garden. I've been admiring some of these on my regular trips to the local PCC store, where they are planted in the dry stream bed garden out front.
Here you see examples of what I assume are either 'Goldmound' or 'Goldflame' in the PCC garden.

So it happened that yesterday I was working in a corner of my yard that I haven't been happy with for a while. Most of the plants work well together, but there's a spot where nothing has quite fit or been able to thrive. I took out the plants that weren't working and weeded the bed. While I worked, I thought about what might fill in that area and pull it all together. Then I headed up to West Seattle Nursery for more inspiration. Here's what I came home with:
This is Spirea japonica 'Magic Carpet,' a Pacific Northwest Great Plant Pick. It will hold this yellow/chartreuse color all season and will have pink flowers in summer. This vivid foliage, edged with bits of bronze, red and coral, appears to be lit from within. Mature size will be about 2' x 2'. 

I've planted it next to 'Red Fred' heather. We'll see how they get along. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Starting Basil From Seed

If you've ever tried to grow basil here, you know that it isn't fond of our cool, maritime Northwest climate. Plants set out in May often sulk, refuse to grow - and then die. I used to work at a local nursery and watch customers come in week after week to buy basil plants to replace the ones they lost the week before. We recommended cloches and bringing plants in at night until temperatures warmed, but that advice fell on deaf ears. Visions of pesto, bruschetta, and caprese salads got in the way, and plants went into the ground much too early.

All that said, it is possible to grow basil successfully in Seattle. If you get seedlings started indoors in mid- to late April, they will be ready for transplanting in early June when the soil has finally warmed up.

It is easy to do this. All you need is a sunny windowsill, some potting soil, a container for the soil - an empty egg carton will work just fine - and some seed.

The fun part is the seed! You generally always have more varieties to choose from in seeds, for any type of plant, than you will find when you buy seedlings already started. Growers can afford to grow what they believe they can sell, and they aren't too willing to try exotic varieties. You, however, have options.

Take a look at this list of basil varieties from Botanical Interests (a Seattle Garden Ideas affiliate). You can choose from lemon basil, lime basil, purple basil, Thai basil, Italian basil, Greek basil, plus organic and heirloom blends. Imagine the possibilities!

It will take about 4-6 weeks for your seedlings to be ready to plant outside. You will need to harden the seedlings off - meaning that you gradually acclimate them to being outside. One way to do this is to cover them with a floating row cover, like reemay fabric, after you plant them. The fabric will keep the plants from being sunburned during the day and hold heat in overnight. After a few days, you can remove the fabric and the plants should be hardy enough to thrive.

So there you have it - everything you need to know about getting basil to grow in Seattle. Enjoy!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Comely Camellias

Two types of camellias grow well in the Seattle area: Camellia japonica and its smaller, daintier cousin, Camellia sasanqua.

The larger of the two, C. japonica, is in blooming right now in Seattle and will continue into May. There are many varieties of this shrub, the Sunset Western Garden Book lists an entire page of them, but the most familiar form is the one shown below with deep, rose pink flowers.

Camellias want some protection from hot sun, although you see plenty of them doing just fine in western exposures here in the mild summer climate of western Washington. Once established, they are quite drought tolerant. They do well in the acid soils of the Seattle area. Fertilize with an acid plant food shortly after blooming to assist in setting healthy flower buds for the coming year.

Prune these shrubs just after they bloom. Large specimens can be limbed up to make them into small trees. Note that flower buds for the coming year start to form within weeks of the last blooms. If you wait too long in the season to do your pruning, you risk losing next year's flowers.

Camellia sasanqua is much smaller and finer textured than C. japonica. Many varieties have single flowers, as you see above, and bloom time is December through January. Sasanquas offer a greater variety of flower colors and variegations than C. japonica. Shop for them when they are in bloom to be sure of what you are getting. Sasanquas make excellent subjects for espallier. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Pieris japonica

Lily of the Valley Shrubs (Pieris japonica) are about half way through their spring bloom and color show right now. These graceful, slow growing shrubs are popular in the Seattle area, and for good reasons.

First, there are the flowers. Large clusters of bell-shaped flowers appear in early March.
Perhaps most commonly seen in Seattle are plants with white flowers.

Flower color choices also include shades of pink, such as 'Valley Rose' and 'Valley Valentine.' Some like 'Christmas Cheer' and 'Daisen' have white flowers edged with rose red.

But the show's not over when the flowers fade. New foliage emerges in colors ranging from bronzy pink to fiery red. Those colors last for 2-3 weeks and then the leaves turn green as they mature.
Varieties grown for their stunning new foliage color include 'Mountain Fire' and 'Flaming Silver.'

There are many varieties of Pieris japonica. Some are dwarf plants, such as 'Pygmaea,' which gets to about 18" tall and wide. Some have variegated leaves, such as 'Variegata,' which has a white margin along the edges. All are slow growing and attractive year around.

Lily of the valley shrubs are easy to care for in the Western Washington area. These plants like part-shade, and moist, acidic soil. Older plants can be limbed up to look like small trees. Pieris is often grouped with rhododendrons and azaleas, which have similar soil and sun requirements.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

Skagit Valley is home to the largest commercial flower bulb growing operations in the US. These companies host the annual Tulip Festival, which runs the entire month of April. Hundreds of acres of colorful bloom make this a popular event for both gardeners and photographers.

Row upon row of daffodils provide the warm-up act for the colorful show
of tulip blooms to come at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
The exact bloom time of the tulip fields depends on the weather. This year's long winter and cool temperatures mean that the blooms will open a bit later this month than they have in other years. But don't let that slow you down. Start planning your trip now by visiting the Festival website. There you will find a map of the gardens, information about the growers, things to do and places to see. Plan on making a day of it and be sure to bring a camera. This is a wonderful outing for the whole family.

For a preview of what you'll see, including stunning photos of unusual tulip varieties, watch this video created by Travelingrandma. Gorgeous!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Euphoric Over Euphorbia

Euphorbia characias wulfenii
OK, "euphoric" might be an exaggeration - I don't necessarily feel euphoric when I see one of these. I just thought it would make a catchy headline. Still, Euphorbia in its many forms is a striking plant. Getting double-takes on the streets of Seattle right now are these specimens of E. wulfenii, that stand about 4 feet tall with huge, chartreuse "flowers." These flowers, technically, are collections of brightly colored bracts. If you look closely you will see tiny "true" flowers nestled inside each bract cup.

There are about 2,000 species of Euphorbia. Probably the best known variety is the poinsettia (E. pulcherrima). Euphorbias can take many forms: shrubs, perennials, annuals and succulents. Most require hotter, drier conditions than we have in the Northwest, but there are several that do well here. In addition to E. wulfenii, look for Mrs. Robb's bonnet (E. amygdaloides robbiae), donkey tail spurge (E. myrsinites), E. palustris, and more at your local nursery.

Note that all plants in this family have white, milky sap that will irritate and even burn your skin. Be sure to wear rubber gloves and long-sleeved shirts when handling them. I've had some nasty burns working with these plants, even when I thought I was being careful. This sap is poisonous if ingested - the level of toxicity varies depending on the cultivar.

There is a variety of Euphorbia called a mole plant or gopher plant ( E. lathyris) because it is believed that the poisonous sap will kill burrowing rodents who attempt to feed on its roots. I've never known this to work. Moles eat worms and grubs, not plant material. For more on what doesn't work, here's an article from MoleCatchers. To get rid of moles, you have to set traps.